Marsha Mateyka Gallery
2012 R Street NW · Washington DC 20009 · TEL 202-328-0088 · FAX 202-332-0520
L. C. Armstrong
The Washington Times
Art & Culture, 1/17/04, pgs. B1 - 2.
"Fusing Beauty with Danger:
Armstrong's Intense Vision"
by Joanna Shaw-Eagle
The tropical lagoons in the Marsha Mateyka Gallery's "L. C. Armstrong: Recent Paintings" exhibit are a big draw for winter visitors. The lagoons' intense hues are a definite contrast to the drab cold outside.
Yet Miss Armstrong's mixed-media paintings hold more than the romance of warm, watery vistas.
The New York artist, 49, aggressively superimposes huge, sensuous flowers such as orchids, irises and sunflowers across the water-scapes. She supports the flattish blooms with mossy stems. Shiny colors look lacquered.
The images could be dream worlds, and Miss Armstrong effectively and intensely expresses the beauty of those worlds throughout the show.
By contrast, tiny figures often run from waves lapping a shoreline or teeter precariously on sailfish. The sunsets are almost too brilliant, the upcoming storms overly violent. Miss Armstrong's vistas of paradise show both the beautiful and the bizarre, mystery and menace.
Viewers need only examine "Approaching Storm-Windsurfers" in the gallery's middle room to begin to understand these contradictory works and their inherent mystery and theatricality.
Onlookers see the back and middle ground landscape and tiny figures of the painting through a dramatic screen of carefully rendered orchids, sunflowers, an iris, a bird-of-paradise and a daylily. Obviously, the flowers represent the "beauty" of the composition.
Not so with the stems-the torn "bizarre"part of the artist's acrylic-on-linen painting.
Miss Armstrong draws the stems with bombfuse sets, ignites the lines and burns them into the painting's surface, she explains in a recent phone interview from her studio.
"They're gunpowder wrapped in cords that are set away from the people lighting them", she says. The identifying labels of the works say "resin over acrylic and bombfuse on linen on wood". "I had started to burn my canvases with cigarettes and I needed to get rid of the habit and find a better burning instrument. When I found the sets in a little store on Canal Street ( in New York ), I knew I had found what I needed. It's the residue of the burn line that forms the stems", Miss Armstrong explains.
These lines have a different meaning from her drawn or painted ones, she says. The artist likens the burned lines and their flowers to the Grecian myth of the phoenix rising from the ashes to live again. Death-the lines-give way to life-the blooming plants. She wants these burned lines to carry a more intense message.
As the last step in creating "Approaching Storm", the painter laid the painting flat and poured resin over it. She says she did this originally to protect the flaking, burned areas of the acrylic paint but found the resin gave the work a shininess that she liked.
In "Fiery Sunset", her aims become less clear. She swirls the rising, calligraphic stems, with their orange and yellow flowers, across the picture's surface but also connects them to the golden sunset.
The impression is more ambiguous than with her "Approaching Storm". Viewers will find there is always a certain amount of obscurity and mystery in the depictions, and these are part of the fascination.
"I want the works to reveal themselves slowly and for visitors to bring something of their own interpretations to the paintings," she says. "I paint intuitively, let the paintings grow on their own and let the color and images grow on their own as I go".
For a maker of fine landscapes and flowers, Miss Armstrong began in an unconventional way. Living in Southern California and earning money for school in the 1970s, she decorated cars and motorcycles in Venice Beach with the idealized "landscapes" her customers requested.
The painter remembers creating the gleaming car surfaces popular in the car culture of the time, using blended colors and downplaying brush strokes. Looking at her art, it seems these techniques are still very much alive in her current painting.
In the 1980s, she received a classical art education and bachelor of fine arts degrees at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., and the University of California at Los Angeles. The artist says she studied figurative art intensively, even taking a UCLA extension art-medical course in which she drew from cadaver models.
It was not until 1990, however, while suffering an uncomfortable pregnancy, that she did a lot of walking and became interested in flowers, she says. The artist found, also, that she loved their shapes and colors and discovered that flowers represent the life-death-resurrection cycle of many art and philosophical traditions.
Miss Armstrong says she only became aware of painters of the 19th-century American Hudson River School-Thomas Cole is the most famous of its artists-when admirers compared her art to theirs. She found they were right, that the works of the Hudson River School had a sense of uneasiness underneath their romantic landscapes that paralleled the menace underlying the beauty of her own work.
Surprisingly, the dichotomy may have come down to her through pop culture such as movies and advertising billboards, the artist says. She illustrates this kind of split most clearly in the small but handsome "Flowers in a Skull Vase", in which gorgeous orchids spill out of a container shaped like a skull.
The idea that loveliness and danger, good and evil, can coexist is nothing new for Miss Armstrong. The artist says she has undergone many traumatic experiences that contain both. She mentions that going through September 11 from her downtown New York City Tribeca home was the most searing.
Without knowing the artist's symbols and the contradictions in her art, visitors will find much to appreciate. That she can combine the pop-art technique of painting 1970s California cars with inspiration from the flowers fo 17th century Dutch paintings is quite a feat.
This show confirms the excellence and originality of her previous four exhibits at the Marsha Mateyka Gallery.
"Galleries: Landscapes that Burn into The Imagination"
by Ferdinand Protzman, The Washington Post, April 27, 2000, p. C5
When L.C. Armstong last showed in Washington, her paintings were big, dramatic abstractions made by affixing lengths of bomb fuse to linen and igniting them, creating simple compositions of jagged, seared lines. She then encased each picture in thick, clear resin. It was rather conceptual art, as much about the idea of what constitutes a painting as the actual image.
So her new work, crammed with pristine flowers, spectacular sunsets, dramatic landscapes and just a smattering of fuse burns, may appear at first to be a radical step away from ideas and toward more traditional painting. But it isn't. Instead, the New York based artist is playing with a far bigger and infinitely more elusive concept: life in millennial America.
For any artist, bumping around the vinyl-encased myths and realities cluttering the great room of the American psyche is an ambitious and dangerous business. So many things can go wrong. We live in narrow-minded, single-issue times. Generalizing about national tendencies is a sure way to offend somebody. Attempts at social commentary frequently miss the mark. Ditto for humor. Whimsy isn't hip. Cynicism is. Meanwhile, daily life moves faster and faster.
"The world strikes me as hurdy-gurdy, over-pressurized with trite rechurning." German artist max Beckmann wrote that in 1935.
Now we're dancing to digital tunes delivered at light speed. You can't blame artists for looking inward and dwelling on issues of race, gender and identity. The big picture is a scary blur.
Armstrong succeeds because she carefully balances the universal and the personal and embraces the beauty, the grandeur, the glossy appeal, the ominous vacancy, the banal horrors and the self-inflicted contradictions of American life. Her paintings, executed in acrylics and bomb fuse and that thick gleaming coat of resin, seem like impeccably preserved snapshots of a long journey through a strange but familiar land.
Like life, the paintings have multiple levels of imagery and meaning. Armstrong starts by painting a landscape scene on the linen, using a mix of radiant, slightly metallic colors to depict sunsets and sunrises, and duller tones for earth and water. The landscapes are lovely, possessing the warm glowing colors and dramatic vistas that characterized the Hudson River School of the 19th century.
But her lakes, hills and skies are clearly of today. In "Sunset Over Lake Champagne", painted this year, two kitschy critters lemmings, monkeys, who knows? cuddle on a rock in the middle of a pond, watching the spectacular sunset. The rock turns out to be the top of a skull. In the foreground, a little girl wades along the pond's edge, wearing a life preserver. Nearby a bikini-clad woman is washing her long blond hair next to a drainpipe spewing some purple liquid.
On top of that Hieronymus Bosch scene, Armstrong laid the fuses. In these paintings, however, the burn marks serve a more literal function; they become the spiky stalks of lovely flowers, some of which are exacting depictions of real blooms, while others are pure inventions by the artist. An example of the latter is the white blossom in "Sunset Over Lake Champagne" which has a human figure as its pistil.
The flowers float like a curtain in front of the landscape creating a strong sensation of depth. Most of the blooms seem to be at their absolute peak. Nothing is blooming or growing in the background. It's as if they were pressed up against a hothouse window overlooking a ruined ecosystem.
The floral layer is topped with the resin. It's mirror surface, a tribute to Armstrong's early days doing customized scenes on vans and cars in California, brings yet another party to the picture: the viewer. Your reflection floats like a ghost on the shiny surface. The only ways to disengage are to lose yourself in the strange beauty or move away.
That's a Brechtian theatrical trick, turning the mirror on the audience, involving and implicating them. But by filling the picture plane with so much action flowers that explode like skyrockets, sunrises, moonrises, sunsets and those weird compelling landscapes you are included rather that indicted. The message, if there is one, seems to be that we're all in this together.
Using such simple techniques and straightforward imagery, Armstrong conjures up myriad metaphors for contemporary American life. Start with the yawning gulf between the celebrity-strewn glitz and glamour pouring from the mass media and the often grim realities of daily existence; school kids' shooting each other at the drop of a Nike.
Exploring the difference between the ways things appear and the way they are isn't new. We're an of the moment society. We like new things, or things that seem new. And we're willing to go to great lengths, such as encasing comfortable furniture in uncomfortable plastic, to retain that sense of newness. Armstrong captures that sense of an action-packed moment. But she injects an ominous note. Blooming is followed by withering. Light gives way to darkness. Wrapping our country's paradox-pocked soul in plastic only highlights the transitory nature of human life and weirdness amid America's tarnished but still awesome physical beauty.
"L.C. Armstrong at Postmasters" by Gregory Volk, Review of Exhibitions, Art in America, p. 150, April 2000.
L. C. Armstrong is known for abstract paintings that incorporate single marks, which she forms by layering lengths of bomb fuse on the canvas, igniting them and holding them in place while they burn. Such marks appear in her striking new acrylic landscape paintings, but now with a twist: they've become stems holding up brilliantly colored flowers , some faithfully reproduced from nature, others invented by Armstrong.
IN "View from 30,000" (1999), an aerial display of these flowers fills a portion of the cloudy sky; on the left, part of an airplane wing zips through the floral extravaganza. Armstrong's flower-in-the-air are gorgeous and touchingly whimsical; it's as if they're leaving the bounds of earth to grow right in to the heavens on their precarious yet strangely menacing stems. Yet they also recall a fireworks display or antiaircraft fire. Throughout these paintings, beauty and anxiety share close quarters.
The works in this show engage a utopian, nature-based strain in American art, but Armstrong introduces startling shifts that are all her own. Her nature vistas also coolly refer to the kitschy scenes found on the sides of customized vans and in 1970s black-light posters. The metallic colors that she favors are closer to shiny auto veneers than to anything organic. And the way she seals everything behind a layer of resin reinforces the journeying quality of her work, as if each piece were a window into an alternative reality.
"Romantic Landscape" ( 1999 ), a panoramic triptych that shows a lake surrounded by mountains, is reminiscent of expansive Hudson River School scenes. The flowers in the foreground are fecund and erotic, but they also seem creepily mutant, as if growing from the ruins of some postapocalyptic landscape. The surrounding mountains are all smoking, as if poised to erupt. Meanwhile, a mermaid perched on a rock in the lake listens to a Walkman; two snowmen on an adjacent rock greet the rising sun with their stick hands, although this event will presumably melt them; and a shark advances on a swimmer in trouble. This is a dysfunctional paradise, an Eden subject to all sorts of bewildering pressures and logic-defying surprises. Like the rest of the works in Armstrong's show, it is both enthralling and jarring.
"Flowers on a Fuse: L. C. Armstrong" by David Pagel, Art Reviews, Los Angeles Times, Friday, May 7, 1999.
"Flowers on a Fuse: L. C. Armstrong"'s dazzling canvases at Angels Gallery marry the quiet beauty of freshly cut flowers to the spectacular drama of eye-popping, earsplitting fireworks displays. Each of the new York-based artist's approximately 4-by-3-foot panels has the density and impact of three separate paintings that appear to have been stacked atop one another and mysteriously fused into a single, head-spinning image.
Sealed under a thick layer of translucent resin, the backdrops are dreamy scenes that seem to be the descendants of grand 19th-century landscapes. Often rendered in a subdued palette of moonlight grays, smokey blues, muted pinks and faded yellows, these ethereal vistas at dusk and sunrise include mountain lakes, paired volcanoes and low-lying cloud banks.
The middle grounds consist of twisting lines Armstrong made by igniting thick string fuses that she pressed against the resin. As the fuses burned, they burnished dark, fiery marks into the paintings.
These spidery lines serve as the stems of the brilliantly colored flowers that leap into the foreground. Enormous orchids, resplendent sunflowers, lush ladyslippers and velvety hibiscus - along with an imaginary blossom or two-have been laid out across the picture plane so that not a single petal overlaps with another. So deliberate is their arrangement that the paintings recall formal portraiture.
Like hybrid offspring that are bigger and better than their sources, Armstrong's exquisite pictures of towering flowers evoke a world gone out of control. But unlike most science-fiction stories about mutation, her works do not tell cautionary tales about the virtues of balance and the benefits of moderation.
Instead, they endorse excess. Sharing less with Alexis Rockman's mutant morality tales and more with Sharon Ellis' celebrations of artifice, Armstrong's giddy images demonstrate that, when it comes to art, there's no such thing as too much fo a good thing.
The Washington Post
Saturday, March 22, 1997, B2
"Business is Booming: Bomb Fuse Ignites L.C. Armstrong's Imagination"
by Ferdinand Protzman
L. C. Armstrong was poking around in a junk store on Canal in New York City one day in 1988 when she found a material that sparked a dramatic change in her art: bomb fuse.
"I'd gotten really blocked about painting," the 42 -year-old artist says, "I was spending lots of time creating really smooth surfaces on the canvas by applying layers of gesso and sanding them down. But when I would get the surface ready to go, I couldn't do anything; it seemed too precious. So I told myself, 'I need to defile this.'"
To that end, she started painting her surfaces on paper, then burning the paper. That proved cathartic, but impermanent. The volatile bomb fuse, however, let her burn a unique kind of line on a surface, which she then painted and sealed with coats of clear resin. Armstrong's first attempts were on aluminum. Later she developed a technique for burning the fuse on acrylic on linen.
Creating a hard, shiny finish for her painted works was not a problem. To make money while attending art school in Pasadena, CA, Armstrong used to do custom airbrush painting on vehicles, boats and aircraft, protecting the work with a final crystal clear "fetish finish". After graduation, she had a successful career as an illustrator, before turning to painting and sculpture.
When Armstrong began making paintings using bomb fuse, she consciously abandoned her commercial background and training. "I didn't want anything to do with those techniques," she says, "I wanted to make totally abstract art." For the next six years, she produced fairly complex paintings suffused with the tension between the burned and painted areas.
"I developed this approach that has inherent contrasts," says Linda Christine Armstrong, who has always been called L.C. "There is construction and destruction. I'm scarring the surface with the bomb fuse, which is destructive, then painting and sealing it in resin, which is like healing. I attach the fuse to the surface to control the line, but I can't control how the fuse burns, how it marks the surface. There's also a contrast between the sweet, cloying, subtle colors and harshness of the burn."
Those contrasts still power her most recent work on exhibit at Marsha Mateyka Gallery. But these paintings seem even more concentrated than her previous efforts, the jagged scars, the painted lines and fields of soft, supple color pared down to their essence. Beneath the resin's mirrorlike finish, which gives the paintings remarkable depth and fleetingly superimposes the viewer's image on the picture, there is a more lyrical, even whimsical feeling. The paintings are priced from $ 4,000 to $ 8,000.
Many of Armstrong's works are intentionally evocative of other artists' styles. "Stripe-Tease", for example, is a series of burned and painted stripes forming right angles, which echoes the early stripes and geometric forms found in Frank Stella's work.
"It's a take on Stella. Other paintings in the show were inspired by Agnes Martin and Barnett Newman", Armstrong says. "I own up to than. What I do is referential without being appropriative. Sometimes it's deliberate and sometimes it's intuitive; the imagery just comes from my visual memory while I'm working, which is fine with me. I think former styles and movements have lain fallow long enough that they are ripe for re-exploration. What I do is recombinant and reclaiming, it's enriching to use things like this".
But using things like bomb fuse and resin presents certain problems, such as toxic fumes and smoke. In developing her painting process, Armstrong was forced to find ways to safeguard her health. She wears a mask, chemical-resistant clothes and hood, two pairs of protective gloves and has a special ventilation system in her New York studio.
"It's almost like I'm wearing a spacesuit," she says. "But I have to do it because the materials are volatile and toxic. The whole time I was doing the work for this show I was pregnant and the baby's doing fine and I am, too, so I feel pretty safe."